My very first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts? (based on my dissertation at Wisconsin), explored the impact of American vaudeville on early sound comedy, seeing variety performance as an important influence on the films of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Joe E. Brown, Wheeler and Woolsey, and a spate of other clowns and comics of the early 1930s. I confess that given my current research interests, I don’t get very much demand to pontificate about the particulars of early 20th century popular theater.
Yet, the other day, a journalist asked me to look at this OK Go music video, currently extremely popular on YouTube, as part of a story he was doing about the ways that digital distribution of content was impacting the recording industry. And I was suddenly struck by the ways that YouTube represents for the early 21st century what Vaudeville represented in the early 20th century.
Let me see if I can sketch some of the resemblances:
As the name suggests, the variety stage was based on the principle of constant variation and diversity. It represented a grab bag of the full range of cultural interests and obsessions of an age marked by dramatic social, cultural, and technological transformations. In the course of an evening, one might watch a Shakespearean actor do a soliloquy, a trained dog act, an opera recital, a juggler or acrobatic turn, a baggy pants comedian, an escape artist or magician, a tap dance performance, and some form of stupid human tricks (such as a guy with hammers on his shoes hopping around on a giant xylophone or an act where baboons play musical instruments). Similarly, YouTube brings together an equally ecclectic mix of content drawn from all corners of our culture and lays it out as if it were of equal interest and importance, trusting the individual user to determine the relative value of each entry.
Second, vaudeville performances were short modular units — usually less than 20 minutes in length — and much was written about how the demands of economy — get in, score big, and get off — impacted the aesthetic choices made. There was no time for elaborate characterization or plot development. Every element had to pull its own weight. Nothing that wasn’t necessary for the overall emotional impact could survive. Again, one of the characteristics of YouTube has been this similar push to conciseness. In theory, content can be of any length. In reality, the stuff that gets passed around the most is short and streamlined. YouTube viewers get restless if anything lingers too long. And there is thus a similar emphasis on the immediate emotional impact.
Vaudeville was an actor-centered mode of production. There was no director who could build an ensemble piece. Actors chose their own material, refined their own skills, and lived and died entirely on the basis of their ability to connect one on one with the audience. It was a form which placed a high premium on virtuosity — on the ability of the performer to impress the spectator with their mastery. Similarly, YouTube is a space of individualized expression. This video is about nothing if it isn’t about the mastery and virtuosity of these young performers. We watch breathlessly to see what they will do next and if they can pull off a high risk performance.
As vaudeville goes to film, it encourages certain stylistic choices which preserve the integrity of individual performances — so there is a tendency towards the long take so we can see for sure that the performer actually did what is being represented on the screen. Part of what impresses me about this video is that this elaborate set of stunts is performed in a single take so that any screw up will require the performers to start over from scratch. The newsman told me that it took fifty tries to complete this video.
Filmed vaudeville performances were also performed directly to the camera with the performers actively courting the attention and approval of the viewer. Again, there is no question of the camera here being part of an invisible fourth wall unobserved by the people on screen: these guys are performing for us and working their pants off to get our approval.
In a context of constant variation, the individual performer tried above all else to be memorable, which typically meant a strong reliance on spectacle and a desire to intensify emotional effects. Similarly, the YouTube performer wants to be so spectacular that you feel compelled to pass their content along to your friends. It depends upon extreme spectacles, shocks, and stunts (the Jackass side of the platform) to produce content that will move virally across the blogosphere. The best YouTube content is content that is so unbelievable that it has to be shared.
One of the tropes of the vaudeville stage was the interrupted act: i.e. the performer would fake a series of disruptions and distractions which threatened to destroy the carefully constructed performance, thus giving a sense of spontaneity which played up the liveness of the staged experience. Similarly, though clearly different, the YouTube performer courts a sense of the amateurish which also places a high emphasis on seeming spontaneity — many videos are carefully staged so as to look unrehearsed. There is not necessarily a push towards liveness, but there is a push towards “realness” — towards the idea that you can’t believe what you are seeing really happened — and as we are increasingly recognizing, we are often right. The YouTube performer stages “realness” and in the process, much that is “fake” passes as real.
The vaudeville act might also strive for a pattern of theme and variation — choosing some everyday space or activity and then playing with all different permutations of it. As a good example of the vaudeville aesthetic, consider this juggling routine by W.C. Fields made available again, ironically enough, thanks to the magic of YouTube. It is this principle that shapes the OK Go treadmill video and left me thinking about the connections back to vaudeville.
Of course, vaudeville was not simply about human performance. During an age when new technologies were being invented and diffused at a rapid rate, vaudeville was also a site of technological virtuosity. Many of the new inventions of the period were first introduced to the public on the vaudeville stage — most famously, in this country, cinema itself. The magician was an early adopter and adapter of technologies, using the sense of wonder that surrounded new mechanisms to astonish and baffle their patrons. Not surprisingly, then, something like vaudeville is resurfacing during another moment of rapid technological development and deployment.
Some YouTube content also involves spectacular use of technology, as in this video which I received from one of my students. Here, the basic mechanics of the racing game are hacked, producing a spectacular and sublime display of movement, which very much recalls the fascination with escalating chases which was part of the early cinema. The film historian Tom Gunning has talked about cinema at the turn of the century as a “cinema of attractions” and that term seems very apt for what draws us back again and again to YouTube.
Finally, vaudeville served a particular function during a phase of colonization and immigration. It brought people and traditions from exotic parts of the world to America and it staged the cultural differences which shaped the immigrant experience. By the same token, YouTube is a product of our current moment of globalization, where we are fascinated to discovery that young men in China are lip-syncing to American boy bands or where the openings to Japanese children’s programs, otherwise unknown in the American context, may fascinated removed from their original context.
In the not too distant future, social historians will want to examine the current contents of YouTube as a microcosm of contemporary culture, much as vaudeville’s popular performances still yield rich insights into the culture of the last turn of the century.